The Power of Boundaries: Understanding and Setting Healthy Limits in Relationships

Young masculine person with a furrowed brow and a frown

We’ve all been there – finding ourselves in situations where we’ve struggled with setting and maintaining boundaries with our friends. It’s a normal part of life, and we all face challenges when it comes to navigating our relationships. Sometimes we may feel guilty for saying no or worry about the reactions of others when we assert our needs. It’s important to remember that you’re not alone in this struggle, and it’s perfectly okay to feel overwhelmed at times. The key is to become more aware of the types of boundaries we hold for ourselves and those we interact with and to recognize the opportunities for growth and change. That’s where this blog post comes in: I aim to provide insight and guidance to help you shift toward setting healthy, flexible boundaries that can improve your relationships and overall well-being.


When it comes to building healthy relationships, one essential skill is understanding and setting appropriate boundaries. Boundaries are the invisible lines that separate and protect our individual needs, values, and emotions from those of others. They help us maintain a sense of personal identity and prevent us from becoming overly enmeshed with others. In this blog post, we will explore four types of boundaries – rigid, broken/spongy/diffuse, invisible/soft, and flexible – and how they impact our mental health and well-being. By understanding these different boundary types and their effects on our lives, you can work towards developing and maintaining healthier boundaries in your relationships with partners, family members, and friends.

Four Types of Boundaries

Rigid Boundaries

Rigid boundaries can provide a sense of protection, especially if we have experienced trauma. However, they also create a barrier that makes it difficult for us to connect with others and for others to get close to us, both emotionally and physically. People with rigid boundaries often find it hard to share their feelings and needs, which can make relationships feel distant and unfulfilling. Rigid boundaries may be dependent on time, place, or circumstances and are often rooted in negative past experiences.

Broken / Spongy / Diffuse Boundaries

These types of boundaries are often unclear and undefined, making it difficult for individuals to communicate and understand their own limits. People with broken, spongy, or diffuse boundaries may internalize other people’s emotions or allow intrusive thoughts and feelings to enter their inner world. This can lead to feelings of resentment, frustration, shame, or sadness. Spongy boundaries are a combination of soft and rigid boundaries, with individuals unsure of what to let in and what to keep out.

Invisible / Soft Boundaries

Soft boundaries often lead to individuals merging with other people’s boundaries, making them susceptible to manipulation. People with soft boundaries may struggle to maintain their sense of self, as they become overly involved in the emotions and needs of others. This can result in a lack of balance and personal boundaries in relationships.

Flexible Boundaries

Flexible boundaries are the ideal type of boundary to strive for in relationships. These boundaries are clear, healthy, and adaptable, reflecting our needs, desires, emotions, and values. With flexible boundaries, we can maintain openness to others’ thoughts, feelings, and needs, creating a safe space for communication and growth in relationships. Flexible boundaries foster respect, and closeness, and prevent feelings of overwhelm and resentment, while still allowing for secure attachment and the fulfillment of our needs.

Setting Healthy Boundaries

To set healthy boundaries, first, identify your current boundary type – are you rigid, spongy, soft, or flexible? Once you acknowledge your boundary type, you can work towards developing healthier boundaries.

  • Develop a boundary and test its health: Ask yourself if the boundary promotes wellness and growth for all parties involved.
  • Communicate the boundary: Share your thoughts, feelings, and needs with others in a calm and respectful manner.
  • Enforce the boundary: Both parties are responsible for upholding the agreed-upon boundary.

Moving from rigid, spongy, or soft boundaries to flexible ones can be challenging, but with mindfulness, self-observation, and clear communication, it is possible. It may require confronting fears, reassessing what you truly want, and learning to communicate in a way that benefits both parties. Be prepared for some resistance or changes in your relationships, but remember that setting healthy boundaries ultimately leads to more fulfilling connections.

Practicing activity to try: Practice asking for what you want in a professional or loving way, and commit to feeling guilt-free about your request. By doing so, you’ll be on your way to developing healthier, flexible boundaries that foster stronger, more balanced relationships.

Combination Boundaries and How to Shift Toward Flexible Boundaries

Many people vacillate between boundaries that are too weak and too rigid. For example, you might have a pattern where you don’t set enough boundaries, then you get hurt, and then you overcompensate with rigid boundaries for a while. You could also have weak boundaries with your family and rigid boundaries at work. Or it may feel like it’s a haphazard mix of the two. In any case, people who struggle with boundaries often have a combination of weak and rigid boundaries but can’t find the middle ground.

Boundary Setting Tendencies

  • Soft: A person with soft boundaries merges with other people’s boundaries and is often a victim of psychological manipulation.
  • Spongy: People with spongy boundaries are unsure of what to let in and what to keep out. They use a combination of soft and rigid boundaries.
  • Rigid: A person with rigid boundaries is walled off or closed off so no one can get close to them physically or emotionally. This is often the case of someone who has been a victim of physical, emotional, psychological, or sexual abuse. Rigid boundaries can be selective on place, instance, or time, but overall they stem from bad previous experiences.
  • Flexible: Flexible boundaries are ideal. They are similar to selective rigid boundaries, but the person has more control in deciding what to let in or what to keep out, is resistant to emotional contagion and psychological manipulation, and is difficult to exploit. Emotional contagion, also known as emotional transfer or vicarious emotion, happens when subjective emotions are transferred to those witnessing the emotions, sort of an “emotional co-dependency.”

The first step in boundary setting is to decide what type of boundaries you set. Are you spongy, rigid, soft, or flexible? Once you acknowledge your boundary type, you can take steps to develop healthy boundaries.

Shifting Toward Flexible Boundaries

The process of shifting from soft, spongy, or rigid boundaries to flexible ones can be challenging, as it requires mindfulness and self-observation during emotionally charged conversations and experiences. It also involves getting really clear about what you want and how to communicate this with others in a way that is advantageous for both parties.

Soft Boundary Setter

Soft boundary setters need to face some fears before communicating their boundaries, and get clear about what they want and why they want it. Some fears may be true, while others are not. Additionally, some desires may not be genuine. Working through these challenges can be done independently or with professional guidance. However, it’s important to remember that standing up for your needs might lead to resistance or even the end of certain relationships. But ultimately, setting flexible boundaries opens the door for healthier relationships and opportunities.

Rigid Boundary Setter

Rigid boundary setters have been keeping people at bay for some time, which can prevent the joy of deep friendships and relationships. It’s important to consider tearing down the walls with more flexibility, and allowing vulnerability into your life. Practice this by inviting someone to collaborate on a project or activity you usually prefer to do alone. During this activity, practice negotiating a win-win situation for both parties.

Spongy Boundary Setter

Spongy boundary setters can be confusing to friends and loved ones due to their inconsistent behavior. The key is to practice setting flexible boundaries and communicating them calmly and non-reactively. Start with something simple and easy to communicate, and practice this method until it becomes automatic.

Seeking help from an experienced coach or psychologist can be beneficial, as helping professionals genuinely care and will do everything in their power to help you negotiate your best possible self and life.

Tips for Developing and Maintaining Healthier Boundaries

To further assist you in developing and maintaining healthier boundaries in your relationships, consider the following tips:

Know Yourself

Understanding your own values, beliefs, and emotional needs is essential for establishing clear and healthy boundaries. Reflect on your past experiences and recognize patterns that may have led to unhealthy boundaries. Self-awareness will help you create boundaries that align with your core values and needs.

Practice Assertiveness

Learning to assertively communicate your needs and feelings is crucial in setting and maintaining boundaries. Be clear, respectful, and honest when expressing your needs, and remember that assertiveness is not the same as aggression.

Prioritize Self-Care

Taking care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally is key to maintaining healthy boundaries. When you prioritize your well-being, you can recognize when your boundaries are being violated and take action to restore balance.

Set Realistic Expectations

Understand that not everyone will respect your boundaries, and that’s okay. It is your responsibility to enforce and maintain your boundaries, even when faced with resistance. Be prepared to let go of relationships that don’t honor your boundaries, and focus on those that do.

Be Flexible and Open to Change

As you grow and evolve, your boundaries may also change. Be open to adjusting your boundaries as your needs and circumstances change, and remember that flexibility is a key aspect of healthy boundaries.

Developing and maintaining healthier boundaries is an ongoing process that requires self-awareness, communication, and the willingness to change. By working on these skills and applying the tips outlined above, you can create boundaries that support your mental health and well-being, while fostering more fulfilling relationships with those around you.

Disclaimer: This blog shares general information only, not professional advice or recommendations. Consult healthcare providers for personal guidance. Decisions based on content are the reader's responsibility. Thank you.

Clayre runs a group practice of three queer and trans therapists, including youth therapist Audrey Wolfe, RCC, LGBT therapist Camber Giberson, RCC, CCC, and gender-affirming therapist Clayre Sessoms, RP, RCT, RCC, CCC, ATR-P. Work with us: book a session.

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